Sunday, November 2, 2014

That old yarn

I haven't been to an agricultural show for at least a decade, and last time I did I was too old to get excited about showbags, rides on the whizzamagig and foodlike substances on sticks, but, on the other hand, I hadn't yet settled into my early-onset nanna-esque enthusiasm for produce displays and vintage machinery. Thirty-six, it turns out, is the perfect age for enjoying agricultural shows, and the Whittlesea Show today was a delight. I got to witness from afar the latest fairground cuisine (variations on deep-fried fairy-floss). The arts & crafts competition displays were glorious, esp. in the Best Decorated Orange or Potato category, the Fair Isle sock display, the carrot cake competition, and the great Orstrayan backyard dunny division. There were fewer exhibits of baby animals being terrorised by kids than I'd feared, and the weather was on the chilly side of 15ºC (thank you v. much, southerly change), which meant that the handsome, hand-brushed Poll Herefords standing around with no shade or water weren't suffering unduly. And - finally - there was an alpaca display, including a coven of spinsters transforming alpaca fluff into a very respectable yarn.

Which was just what I needed, being myself a struggling novice in the alpaca-yarn spinning department. I made some inroads about a week ago, after watching several bajillion instructional youtube videos on setting up my spinning wheel, carding fleece, making rolags (rolags!), and spinning itself. But even so, this meagre length of yarn -

- was all I could make before I stopped in frustration. The yarn kept breaking, and, uncoordinated at the best of times, I was finding it nigh impossible to pedal with one foot, use both hands to pinch the rolag into something finer and threadlike, not slow my pedalling down so that the wheel started going backwards, deploy my third hand to grab the next rolag and introduce it, scratch behind my ear etc, and remain upright. Hand-foot-eye-machine synchronisation, never my strong suit.

At some point in this dogforsaken initiation into spinning I gave up, grabbed an old ball of  Patons 5-ply and started knitting this bedsock, on which I made tremendous progress at last week's poetry-at-the-pub, with the aid of my trusty book of sock patterns, I Can't Believe I'm Knitting Socks.

If only there were a companion volume, I Can't Believe I'm Spinning Alpaca Fleece.

So, anyway, it was very comforting to speak to the alpaca spinners today and discover a few things: (1) everyone finds spinning hard at first; (2) noone learns to spin from youtube; (3) alpaca wool isn't your optimal beginner's fibre, given its tendency to break, whereas sheep's wool consists of cells that make the wool stick together (or something); and (4) there is such an institution as the Hand Weavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria, headquartered in Melbun, and I could take lessons or join a local group and bludge lessons for free. So I think that's now my plan: I will put the gigantic sack of alpaca fleece back in the cupboard, wait until the new year when the next term of Wednesday evening spinning lessons start, and in the meantime, if I'm stricken down with yarn nerdery, I'll use up some of the commercial wool I've been accumulating over the decades in a flurry of sock manufacturing. I might try treadling my spinning wheel at the same time, just to get my foot in.

Meanwhile, in other news: Spring! The season of empinkification in the front yard.

The season of bees in apple-blossom (except for the apple-blossom that didn't eventuate because the earwigs of doom climbed up the trunks in the night and ate the unopened flower buds ... bloody earwigs).

And t'is the season of Esme Australorp deciding to incubate the next generation of chooklings with her whole soul and self. Esme can't be photographed, because she has planted herself in the darkest farthest corner of the coop and will be enormously disaffected if I open the portal that lets light in on her (whirr, fluff, dinosaur impersonation). We procured for her eight fertilised eggs last Sunday, so that the sitting could produce something other than rotten eggs; she broke two by accident on her first day, settling in, but all's gone well ever since, and she's almost a third of the way through the incubation now with six eggs still intact. She is a model of endurance. The whole incubation involves 21 days of sitting, turning the eggs over now and then so the embryos don't stick to the shell, holding in her poos, her thirst, her hunger, her need to stretch, her desperate need for a dustbath, until that brief moment in the afternoon when it's warm enough to leave the eggs and she can dash out and get a day's worth of living compressed into twenty minutes. Puts my frustrations with the alpaca fleece and the spinning wheel of contrariety right in their place.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Artichokes sotto olio and loquat chutney, via rambling anecdotes about shoelaces and spinning wheels

The other day, Tim bought himself a new pair of shoelaces. I was appalled. "You're paying money for these?" I asked, in my eminently reasonable fashion. "We could make our own shoelaces. I could make them out of nettles. In fact, I think we should learn how to make shoes. I'm sure we could cobble something together. Get it?! Cobble! Ha!" Tim, it turns out, has no interest in learning how to cobble. Apparently - it's hard to believe, I know – he has other things he'd rather do with his time. Like make cheese. The decadence of the West, I tells you.

Some fairy godperson gave me a giant sack full of alpaca fleece via freecycle recently. On the strength of this, I bought a preloved spinning wheel on and borrowed every book on spinning that the Yarra Plenty Library network possesses. The first one I opened featured a tutorial on how to make your own spinning wheel. I could have made my own spinning wheel! Instead I had sold my soul to and bought a second-hand one like the dirty consumerist I am. I'd been feeling so smug about how I was just 239 hours of textile-based labour away from my own home-spun hand-knitted alpaca-fleece undies and there was this book raising the DIY bar another notch in the direction of Tudor-era über-peasant unattainability.

So, today, I'm all set to make my first jar of preserved artichokes for the season when I remember that they require vinegar. I ignore the bottle of white wine vinegar bought by Tim, that Jezebel of mercantilism, and decide that I will use the home-grown liquid that we have been generously describing as "honey wine vinegar". This potion, which fills six wine bottles and has been sitting in our cupboard for almost a year, is the terrible consequence of an attempt at "wild fermenting" mead (wild fermentation being where, instead of adding a commercially produced yeast into the ferment, one leaves the must sitting around in the open air for a bit, allowing it to catch the local micro-organisms). But then I taste it, this "honey wine vinegar", which I haven't touched since December when we palmed some off onto our long-suffering relatives for Christmas, and I am reminded that it is truly horrible (sorry, relatives), and I decide that perhaps in the matter of wine yeasts it is preferable to surrender to the tyranny of the commercial yeast makers. While I'm in surrender-mode, I also decide to use the white wine vinegar for my artichoke project, but! I will recycle it. First I'll use it to marinate the artichokes, and then I'll drain the artichokes, and catch the vinegar, and use it to make loquat chutney.

A backyard artichoke.

A frontyard artichoke. 

Today's artichoke harvest.

The artichoke regimen is this: first I wash 'em, primarily to evict the earwigs; then I remove outer leaves and spiky tops; then I boil them submerged in a solution that's half vinegar, half water and 1 tablespoon salt per 1kg of artichokes, plus bay leaves, a couple of cloves, a chilli; this mixture has to boil for five minutes, and then I drain the acidified artichokes and leave them to cool. When they're cool, I'm going to immerse them in olive oil.

Artichokes, cooling after a brisk boil in vinegar solution.

Meanwhile, I'm plotting the demise of these loquats, picked from a dangling-over-someone's-backfence local loquat tree:

Loquats, could be riper, but the lack of household chutney was getting dire.

My loquat chutney recipe requires a kilo or so of loquats, deseeded, chucked in a pot with the leftover litre of vinegar and salt solution from my artichoke acetification process, plus 500g sugar, 500g chopped onion, a handful of sultanas, two teaspoons of ground mustard seeds, a knob of grated ginger, and a bit of chilli. This gets bubbled and reduced for an hour and a half, scooped into hot jars, and then water-bathed for ten minutes, resulting in ...

enough chutney to last until tamarillo chutney season.

And by now the artichokes have cooled, so they're plonked in one of my mum's giant ex-Nescafe instant coffee jars and submerged in olive oil (which I bought in a 15L cask last March, sufficiently long ago that I can pretend to forget that I didn't make it myself, with my own hand-forged olive press, using locally grown Lalorian olives).

 And that is the end of the story. I am ridiculous.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Walking, onions, and walking onions

One of the nicest gifts I've been given this year (in a ridiculously competitive field, let me tell you) was a 10kg sack of brown onions. Those onions came into my life late in May, and they kept us in onioniness right up until early September, when the last few began to sprout and I had to eat them quickly before they had a chance to win me over, get me planting them out under the Granny Smith, giving them names, and knitting them scarves.

I do grow an onion, of a sort. It's the Egyptian walking fellow. In Summer, he sends up a stalk laden with bulbils; the bulbils grow in the air, weigh the stalk down, make contact with the ground and start putting down roots - voila! new onions! It's a pretty nifty arrangement, saves raising onions from seed blahedy-blah, but, alas, it's not doing anything for my immediate onion supply: the Egyptian walkings are busily enjoying the Spring, with nary a thought of fattening their bulbs.

This year's Egyptian walking onions of insouciance, demonstrating their capacity to chillax in the presence of Esme, if not to produce appreciable bulbs.

Happily, it just so happens to be the Season of Ubiquitous edible Onion Weed. By onion weed I don;t mean the pretty but otherwise pointless so-called onion weed with which I grew up in the wilde of NSW (Nothoscordum inodorum or Allium neapolitanum, nothing to write home about on the gastronomy front), but, rather, the delicious, faintly garlicky, and plentiful Allium triquetrum, or three-cornered leek, growing rampantly along the banks of a Merri Creek tributary near you (or me, more to the point).

Free-range onion weed.

While they don't have the world's enormousest oniony bit, the greens are like a particularly lovely mild shallot. I pulled up a clump from a nearby weedarium yesterday, and whizzed them, leaves, roots, flowers and all, with chickpeas, cumin, chilli, coriander and salt to make falafels. They've made their way into kale & tempeh cook-ups (oh yeah, I sure know how to party), lentil surprises (ditto), and been chopped into potato mash. There's a recipe floating around somewhere for tempura-battered onion weed flowers, which sounds like a dangerous dish to get fond of, but - on the other hand - the onion weed season is brief and the fried stuff is delicious.

In other matters alliumnal, I've got a wicking box full of King Richard leeks on the go. I've been so proud of the way they were growing, my plucky leeks, and then this morning, as we were nearing the end of our 15km creek-side walk from home to CERES (just thought I'd mention that in passing, our 15km walk to breakfast at CERES ... did I say it was 15 kilometres? before breakfast?), we stumbled across the Merri Creek market garden, and spied these beauties that make my leeks look like puny blades of grass.

 Intimidatingly good-looking leeks, buried up to their shoulders and everything.

So that put me in my place. Some kind of leek farmer I am. On the other hand, we came home with half a bagful of free onion weed, so spem in allium.*

* an incredibly sophisticated pun (punion!) on "spem in alium". Vastly improved by this footnote. Or, you know, not.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Special favas' day post: disorganised experiments with the sexual careers of broadbeans

For four years now, I've been growing two varieties of fava beans. The first variety, Aquadulce, white flowers spotted with black, has been my backyard utility broadbean. It produces loads of pods and each pod has loads of seeds, and I like to eat them very much. If I eat almost all, but save ten beans, I'll have bazillions of seeds to sow the following year.

Aquadulce, in flower.

The second variety is the Crimson flowered. It's the broadbean the pope would grow, in my expert episcopal opinion, and by jingo I hope he does, in his abundant spare time, in a raised wicking bed on the Vatican forecourt, using his mitre as an A-grade dibber. It's a gorgeous deep red, but it produces not so many pods with not so many seeds in each pod, and so it's been my front-garden show variety. Because the 12 seeds I bought in 2011 cost $3.95 – over thirty cents per bean – and they're usually easy to save, I keep at least half of these beans for growing the following year, rather than despatching them into the Lalorian belly with gnocci and garlic.

One of the reasons I've been so conscientious about keeping the white-flowering Aquadulces behind the house and the crimson-flowering broadies out front has been to prevent cross-pollination, to keep my crimsons crimson and my Aquadulces prolific. Last year, though, our otherwise blameless neighbour across the street grew a row of broadbeans along her low brick fence, and it would appear that there have been trans-streetway shenanigans.

The evidence is in this year's patch of frontyard crimson broadbeans. Besides a goodly portion - perhaps 90% - which remain the colour of the crimsons above, there is a smattering of deviant hybrids:

 a purple-graduating-to-black ombre broad bean flower.

 a veined violet flower with a black spot,

a richly pink flower, 

 and a slightly less richly pink flower.

Here's where I fail as a eugenicist. Rather than yanking these out to try to retrieve the purity of my crimson stock, or slipping botanical condoms over their stamens, I'm kind of curious to see what these hybrids do (they may have inherited not just the non-crimsonness of her-across-the-road's beans, but - if I'm lucky - some of the prolificness). And I'm still more curious to see what happens to next year's broadbean babies. So I'll be tying bits of wool around the not-quite-crimson-flowering plants to remind me to pay attention, save their seed, and plant them in an experimental bed come May, and in the meantime, I'm enjoying their rare colours.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Basket weaving for mandarin eaters

My mum's been keenly following the adventures of a family of sea-eagles on whose highrise Sydney nest is trained a live-streaming sea-eagle cam (here, for those of you who need a bit of sea-eagle voyeurism in your lives). Every so often the family ornithologist emails my sisters and me an update: the egg's hatched!, the father's just brought back a dead fish!, the chick's taken up violin! I was very impressed to learn from Mum yesterday that the sea-eagles' nest is now six feet wide. That's, like, 183cm or so in the new money. Big! It's a truly impressive structure, woven out of sticks that have somehow stayed together through storms and rain, the comings and goings of a pair of grown-up sea-eagles, and the shenanigans of the baby sea-eagle (who, admittedly, doesn't seem to be doing much besides eating bits of regurgitated fish).

As a person with reproductive designs of my own, I see this nest as something of a challenge. Being able to weave a vaguely permanent structure out of natural fibres is clearly a vital parenting prerequisite, and one I lack. I was pondering all this yesterday as we wandered under the willows along the gully near Ma Harlot's place. Long yellow willow wands, just sprouting their spring leaves, were hanging from the trees like hair and a good scattering of these had detached from the trees and were lying on the ground. These fresh lengths of pliable wood looked like pretty perfect stuff for some amateur nest-smithing.

Or basket-smithing. Back when I were a wee lad, basket-weaving was regularly cited as the height of pointless hippy dilettantism, than which there is no better incentive for a person of my proclivities to wangle some natural fibres into a vaguely bowl-shaped mess. So, behold, my pointless hippy dilettante basket-making method:

1. I make two wreathes of roughly equal circumference. A wreath is just three or so lengths of willow, twisted together into a circle, with the ends tucked in.

2. I fit one wreath around another so that they form right angles (one wreath will form the keel and the handle of the basket, and the other will form the rim of the bowl). At this point I rummage around in my mother's kitchen cupboards until I find her string (although a purist would be using her  own nettle cordage), and secure the wreathes together with a God's-eye lashing.

(For those who skipped the God's-eye-lashing chapter of Girl Guides, there's a neato instruction video here.)

3. I extend the God's eye with some more willow. (It's not really bendy enough for this to work well, but, hey, we amateur sea eagles can't aspire to instant perfection.)

4. I cut some lengths of willow and use these to make the ribs of the bowl. The ends of the ribs get tucked into the messy God's eye lashing, so it helps to make these ends a bit pointy and to make the God's eye fairly substantial.

5. Beginning at one end of the bowl, close to the handle/keel and bowl-rim conjunction, I fold a length of willow in half and begin weaving it back and forth between the ribs. With my next length, I start at the conjunction on the other side. The ribs are at risk of popping out of their God's-eye anchors during this process, but they can be tucked back in again, and as the weaving progresses it secures the ribs.

And so, ta da!, a basket:

While it may not be quite the thing for a family of sea-eagles, it's perfect for mandarins or other things like mandarins (though I should note that when I offered it to my mother for just this purpose, she politely rejected it, which casts some suspicion over whether she really did think the spray-painted macaroni jewellery I gave her for Christmas '82 was the height of fashion).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Almond redivivus

The bees in the almond blossom this week, my happiness levels; there's definitely some kind of correlation. Serious noxiousness has been going down at work (not directly affecting me for now, thank goodness, but affecting people I respect and love and an institution I care about), and while obviously the presence of bees in almond blossom has no impact whatsoever on that situation, it's been palpably good for my coping capacity. I watch those bees in that blossom -- they're like pigs who've happened upon troughs full of strawberry sponge cake, you can almost see them growing fatter -- and it's instantly clear that despite Christopher Pyne and shitsome redundancies and friends having to take stress leave, life goes on, in all its blossoming flower-pillaging superorganismic splendour. (While I'm acknowledging my animal-companions-cum-psychotherapists: a special thanks to euphoriator-in-chief, Beatrice Cat, who celebrates the new dawn by sprawling across my torso, putting her arms on either side of my neck, and kneading my pillow. Truly, there's nothing more life-affirming that a loving whisker up the nostril.)

So I paid a twilit visit today to the almond trees, for the health of my heart. There were no bees, of course (bees are sensible people who go to bed at sunset, and earlier still on chilly Winter afternoons), but I did spy sprouting out of the ground underneath one of the trees a small horde of what I thought were almond suckers. I don't need almond suckers, so I tugged one up, and lo!, it wasn't a sucker at all, but a seedling.

Almond seedling with almond still attached.

I'm guessing that when the cockatoos ransacked the perfectly just ripe almonds late last January, they dropped a few on the ground, as they do. The Winter came, the rain rained (not much, grr), the soil got cold and then warmed up a little bit, and hey sprongo!, six little almond seedlings all beneath the canopy of Messrs. Almondo Nonpareil and Carmel. (While we're on the subject of birds and seedlings, one thing I do so love about herbivorous birds is the way they farm their preferred crops by sowing the seeds - usually in a nice packet of highly nitrogenous fertiliser - all around their habitats. Farming doesn't require tractors and pesticides; we just need to eat the fruit we like and then fly around pooing out the seeds. While this is not yet our national agricultural policy, I am planning to illustrate my theory with flowcharts and send it to the Hon Barnaby Joyce, MP, whom I'm sure will appreciate its elegance.)

Six little almonds, or only five, now that I've torn the taproot on the little 'un in the photo. That's five potential almond trees more than I have room for, but I'm nonetheless contemplating a pretty darn thrilling experiment in almond-rearing. Seedling almonds are risky as food plants – their fruit might have a higher cyanide content than grafted almond varieties – but if all goes well and my seedlings survive in pots, I'll be able to graft scions from my two trees (next Winter, I suppose) and then rehome these almond babies in someone else's garden and/or in an inconspicuous spot on public land (hoorah!). 

This also makes me happy. Thanks be to last year's bees who pollinated the flowers that brought these seeds into being, to this year's cockatoos who so generously dropped them on the ground, and to all the lovely microbes in our good Lalor earth who tended to the seeds in their ineffable microbial way.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bees and the beginning of spring

The number one beekeeping principle around Chateau Lalor is minimal interference. There are a few reasons for this:

1. I have been living with bees for less than three years. The bees, on the other hand, have been living with bees since the Cenozoic era. Even drawing on as much of my species' bee-lore as I have been able to glean in less than three years, the chances of me knowing better than the bees what's good for them is slim tapering to non-existent.

2. Interference risks compromising their health. As for all good things (Schwarzwälderkirschtorte, Pilzdorfpuppenhaus*), the lingua Germanica is on top of this issue, having coined the untenably lovely word, Nestduftwärmebindung. It describes the bees' capacity to keep their nest at a cosy, brood-supporting temperature, more or less irregardless (as they say) of external temperature fluctuations. If we pull open the hive, the warmth disperses and the bees have to work harder to get their babies warm again. The "duft" bit of Nestduftwärmebindung refers to scent, and that gets dispersed too, so hello endemic wax moths, small hive beetles, European wasps, and other bees looking to nick some tasty honey, who all get an extra good whiff of wide open beehive. And finally (or probably not finally, but enough for now), there's a range of bee diseases that are best understood as diseases caused by beekeepers. If there isn't a word for that, then German really needs to get onto it. The truly revolting American foul brood, for instance, is most often introduced to a hive by a beekeeper who picked up infected wax from one hive, didn't clean her tools, and then brought those tools to another hive.

3. It's better for me. Despite there being fifty thousand stinging insects living not ten metres from my back door, I haven't been stung for a year (and when I have been stung in my short beekeeping past, it's because I've been poking around in the hive). Mellow bees make for unstung mammals, which, given the density of mammals (esp. humans) in this here supurbia, seems a good combination.

There are, though, about four times a year when we do need to interfere. And one of them is when this happens:

 a bee with her pannier-bags already swollen is contracting polyamorous marriages between almond-blossoms like there's no tomorrow;

 the lavender and the rosemary throw an early party;

the tagasaste in the park is indecently floral.

When these chaps start flowering, and the peaches and plums are all on the cusp of budburst, the apricots not far behind, the pears and apples ready to bring up spring's rear (sotospeak), we know that the bees are perhaps a week or two away from bursting the seams of their accommodations -- and if that happens, they'll accelerate their spring swarm (where the queen takes off with half the workers to find more commodious digs). Swarming is mostly a good thing - it's the way the superorganism reproduces itself - but when our bees swarm, we want it to be because they're happy and healthy, not because they're out of room.

So, yesterday, in the rare late August warmth, we added an extra empty box to their stack. We put it underneath the existing boxes. Bees prefer to store honey high in the hive, and keep their brood lower down - this, I guess, something to do with temperature control. Putting the empty box underneath the existing ones encourages the bees to expand their brood-rearing downwards, thereby vacating the existing brood cells, so these can be filled with honey. As the formerly-brood-now-honey-cells move to the top of the hive, we can harvest spare honey, and that way we take away the scungy wax that the brood was reared in twelve months earlier. The comb that's been used for brood at some stage always has cocoons in it, which we render and filter out of the wax (and a delightful process that is, too). When beekeepers keep adding boxes to the top of the hive, and not to the bottom, they get gorgeous pristine honeycomb, cocoon-free, but the bees are forced to keep laying eggs in the same cocoon-lined cells, and as successive cocoons accumulate, the cells shrink.

So. In short. The bees now have plenty of room, just in time for the imminent Spring nectar-flow; their hive is right underneath our generous Japanese plum, and I can imagine them eyeing it off as lasciviously as I am; and I've had my spying-inside-their-home fix for the quarter, much to their collective exasperation. There was, you'll be perhaps horrified to learn, a minor plague of earwigs living in their roof and a small slug in the uppermost box. These guys aren't really problems for the bees, but I violated my own the-bees-can-sort-themselves-out rule, and de-slugged and ex-earwigged their house for them. Which is more than I've done for my own house lately.

* possibly not a word